The Persian Language

The Persian Language

Persian (Farsi)

Within the Iranian branch of indo-European languages, Persian is a member of the West Iranian group. The three main dialects of Persian consist of that spoken in Iran (also called Farsi), the Persian of Afghanistan (commonly known as Dari) and the Persian spoken in some of the ex-Soviet central Asian states including Tajikistan.

Iran is a multilingual country where although Farsi is the official language, there are large communities of speakers of other languages such as Arabic, Kurdish and Turkic dialects.

Origins of the Persian Language

The evolution of Persian as the culturally dominant language from Iran to Central Asia to north-western India began with the political domination of these areas by dynasties originating in the south-western province of Iran.  Parsa, later Arabicised to Fars, was ruled by two dynasties: the Achaemenids (559-331bc) whose official language was Old Persian, then the Sassanids (225 -651 AD) who spoke middle Persian. Hence the entire country used to be called Perse by the ancient Greeks, a practice still continued by some today. The name Iran derives from Old Iranian aryanam ‘the realm of the Aryans’.

Standardisation of Persian

Persian appeared fairly standardised first in early poetic diction, which showed few dialectal variations by the tenth century. Nevertheless, the peculiarities of eastern poets led to the compilation of dictionaries explaining those in common Persian.

The formative period for prose writing lasted until the end of the twelfth century where religious, scientific, historical and philosophical texts paid less attention to high style than to reaching the public. By the thirteenth century the regionally marked features had largely disappeared in poetry and prose.

The dominance of classical Persian continued until the beginning of the nineteenth century when new political and cultural conditions brought about under European influence sponsored gradual simplification in style.  This brought the acceptance in writing of standard educated speech developed in Tehran, first through journalism, followed by prose and finally poetry.

Colonial Persian

Persian was cultivated at the courts of the Ottoman rulers, several of whom are known for composing Farsi poetry. Urdu also developed under heavy Persian influence. Persian first entered India with the conquest of North West India by Ghaznavid armies in the eleventh century. Four centuries later, Persian was chosen as the court language by the Mogul rulers, who were major patrons of Persian literature, unlike the contemporary Safavids in Iran. It was at the courts of India and Turkey where many of the major traditional dictionaries of Persian were compiled from the mid tenth to the eighteenth centuries, simultaneously a Persian vernacular was developed in India and it was from here that the English officers of the East India company learnt Farsi before abolishing it as an official language of the Indian courts in 1837.

Katia Reed

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